John by Mrs. Margaret Oliphant

CHAPTER I.

"Djohn, Djohn!" cried the boy, "come back: the mother is looking for you—something has happened. At once, at once, you must go home!"

"What has happened? Is she ill? Has she hurt herself? Has there been an accident?" demanded John, a tall lad of sixteen, dressed, like the first speaker, in country clothes of French cut, but with a certain difference which marked his different nationality.

"There has been an accident, but not to her. Make haste! It is very exciting. It is a gentleman that is hurt, and he is your father. Half the village is at the door. So go, quick, quick! I have run before them all to tell you."

"A gentleman who is my father! My father is dead years ago," said the elder boy, with a flush on his face.

"Nevertheless it is quite true what I say. Come quick, come quick! I am going back: something new may have happened even since I came away."

With that the little French villager rattled off on his noisy shoes, full of excitement, down the stony street towards the railway station, calling to some other youths, as he passed, also to come quick, for that something tremendous had happened chez l'Anglaise. That little group clattered after him, all agog in a moment with the precious thought of some distraction; for few things ever happened in these regions. But the person most concerned hung back. He had never been out of this village in his life—he knew no other mode of existence; yet when Jean called to John that his home was the scene of a mysterious catastrophe, John held back with a proud shame and horror which could not endure publicity. Perhaps his slowness of brain took a moment more to fathom the mere fact of a catastrophe; but in reality his heart was already beating loudly in his breast, and his head beginning to buzz and swell, while still he kept up the fiction of walking deliberately and yielding to no excitement. What was it that had happened? Nothing had happened in all John's life but what happened every day. He had been born and lived always in that little town of Cagnes. He was the son of l'Anglaise, and, as a matter of fact, though he had been brought up just like them, he was not the same as the other boys. There was something in him different: he was slower than they were, more deliberate, more calm. He did not quarrel as they did, noisily, with shrieks, and sometimes tears; but he was more dangerous than the rest when his composure was really disturbed. His mother was a very shrinking, quiet woman, who lived in a small house with a big garden on the lower slope of the hill. She was one who said little to anybody, even to her son whom she adored; but she was a very useful person in her quiet way, and though she was English, and silent, and a stranger, was rather popular than otherwise in Cagnes. Everybody knew l'Anglaise, who was a feature in the small community, not like anybody else. People who knew her well called her Madame Jeanne. She had arrived there quite by accident in the first grief of her widowhood, with a pathetic story, as was commonly told and reported. She had gone to meet her husband, a sailor, at Marseilles; but instead of finding him had received the news of his death—and being very lonely, had strayed on distracted until she saw the little town of Cagnes rising upon its hill above the prosaic line of the railway, and all the green and lovely country round. She had stopped there at hazard, in the sickness of her heart; and there her son had been born, and she had lived ever since. I am not aware that any one had heard this story from her own lips. Certainly John had never heard it; but he understood somehow, as everybody else did in Cagnes, that this was his mother's story. So many things there are in the world which have come into the common mind somehow, exist by some vitality of their own, and do not need to be re-told. John would have gone to the stake for it, and so would half the population of Cagnes, that his father was a sailor and died before he was born. What, then, did this ridiculous little Jean, Jean au Meunier, the miller's son, mean by his ridiculous story? John would not follow down the steep and stony street, where every step made such a noise on the flags, as if he were moved by that absurd tale. But presently he dived down one of the side lanes which led down the slope of the hill, almost perpendicularly between two lines of houses, until you came to the broken slopes farther down, where you could zigzag your way among the prickly aloe bushes, and the terraces of the olive gardens. His mother's cottage lay at the foot of the hill, with its large, sloping, sunny garden, in which the trees in blossom, peach and apple, stood out against the grey background of the olives, and the last of the winter oranges made a show for more than they were worth upon the darker green of the trees. John's heart beat very loud indeed as he tumbled down these steps, slipping and springing in his haste; but he was half-disappointed, half-relieved, to find no crowd, no commotion about the house. The door was locked as usual, and the key hid under the great white bank of marguerites, as it always was when his mother had gone out. There was not a sign about of anything but the ordinary calm.

Some one, however, called to him from the road, as he stood, not knowing what to do next, in front of the gate.

"Hé, le Djohn!" cried this passer-by, "thy mother is not here. You will find her at the Hôtel de la Gare, with the gentleman who is dying, or like to die."

"What gentleman?" cried John, striding over the broken ground towards the speaker.

"Do I know? Some one who came in search of her and thee. It is thought thy real father. But why ask me? Go and see for thyself!"

John paused a little till this man had passed, disappearing into the valley. He would not allow a mere peasant, a clodhopper, to see the commotion in which his mind was; but as soon as the passer-by was out of sight he took to his heels and ran all the way, which was more than a mile, through the opening of the valley to the white Route Nationale which ran along the coast, on the other side of which was the little new station and a half-built house, emblazoned with the ambitious title of Hôtel de la Gare, in the meantime not much more than a café, where the Cagnois went on Sundays to drink their bocks and breathe the dust they love. Here, sure enough, there was a crowd at the door, and many signs of excitement—the men standing about and describing something to each other, two railway porters surrounded by the closest group, and the women all pressing up the steps, shaking their heads and asking questions of the proprietor, who stood blocking up the doorway. John had run as only a boy can all the way until he came in sight of this little throng; then he altered his aspect, slowed down by degrees, thrust his hands into his pockets, and came the rest of the way in slow marching time, as if he were going along for his proper diversion, and had nothing on his mind. There was a great outcry, however, before he reached the spot, and he saw his mother led out into the balcony and placed there in a chair, apparently fainting, one woman sprinkling water upon her head, another fanning her, two or three hanging about wringing their hands. When John saw this he made a sudden forward movement, and forced his way through the crowd, which, as soon as it was seen who he was, gave way before him.

"It is her boy—let him go to her. Djohn, God bless thee! be good to thy poor mother. Let him go in, let him go in, Père Rondilet—it is her boy."

But, notwithstanding these encouragements and the readiness of everybody to help him, it was not so easy for John to attain to his mother. There were two rooms which opened upon that balcony, the doors of both of which were shut and guarded, one by a spare, trim, English-looking man, the other by one of the women who knew Madame Jeanne, and who now took John's head in her two hands, kissed him, leaving a tear on his cheek, and begged him to have patience a little.

"Thy mother has had a great shock," she said. "She has an attack of the nerves—how could it be otherwise after such a discovery? Wait a little till she comes to herself, my little friend." "Little friend" does not mean anything so soft and tender in English as mon petit ami did; but we must take the faults of our language along with its qualities.

"What does it mean?" cried John. "What lies are they all saying about my father? My father was dead before I was born."

"I beg pardon," said the English-looking man, in very slow and difficult French; "is this the English lady's son?"

John answered abruptly in English, perhaps even a little rudely. "Who are you?" He was very much irritated and troubled, poor boy. He divined a certain inferiority in the man, and the horrible question, Was this perhaps his father? crossed his mind.

"I am Mr Rothbury's servant—I may say his confidential man; and I know everything," was the strange reply.

The good woman who had just spoken to John stood open-mouthed with admiration to hear the boy whom she had known all her life thus express himself in a foreign tongue with an aplomb which was extraordinary, and which the strange gentleman quite a gentleman in the opinion of Mère Pointêt, understood and replied to with so much deference. Decidedly John, who had been brought up among them all, and considered just as one of the other boys, had more in him than anybody thought.

"What do you mean by everything?" said John. "And who is Mr Rothbury? I don't suppose there is anything to know."

"This is not a place to explain, if you are not acquainted with the circumstances, sir," the English valet said.

John was not at all accustomed to be spoken to in this tone; and though it was meant to be very respectful, it seemed to him something like mockery. He grew very red with the idea that he was being laughed at.

"Perhaps you mistake me for some one else," he said. "I can speak English because my mother is English—that is all; and I won't stand being made fun of, I can tell you. Though you are," he added after a moment with reluctant candour, "a great deal bigger than me."

"I am not making fun of you, sir. I am your father's valet; it wouldn't become me, especially with him, poor gentleman, lying dead on the other side of the door."

"Lying dead!"

A kind of horror seized upon John. He had never, that he knew of, been so near to any one who was dead. He drew back a step, with the timidity that is born of awe.

"Would you like to see him, sir?" the valet said.

"What does he say?" said the Mère Pointêt. "It is just: you ought to go and see him, you who belong to him. Thy mother is too much agitated—it would kill her to remain there; but thou, boy, go—it is only right, since the man is thy father, whatever he may have been in his life."

"I have no father—my father died long ago," the boy cried.

But presently, without wishing it, he found himself in the room which the valet unlocked to admit him. A man lay on the bed in his ordinary clothes—the clothes in which he had travelled. Nothing as yet had been done of those last offices which are performed for the dead. The windows which opened on the balcony were half-closed with shutters, but open enough to let the sounds without come in; the room was, if not "the worst inn's worst room," at all events the bare, newly-plastered, half-furnished room of a poor railway hotel. There were no curtains, no veil of any kind to conceal the terrible fact of that big figure lying there, in all the dreadful ordinariness of a tweed travelling suit, and boots upon which the dust of the road still lay.

"You must not think it was the shock alone," the valet said, moving on tiptoe, and speaking in a whisper. "It was a great shock, of course; but it happened yesterday. My master saw Mrs Rothbury standing on the platform at the station as the train went by. Shows how much he had thought of her, doesn't it, sir, that just a glimpse like that as we went by was enough, after all these years? To be sure, the train slowed as we went through the stations. I saw the lady too, and I believe it was you, sir, along with her; but then I had never seen my poor master's wife. And he didn't know anything about you, if you'll excuse me saying it. He would have come back here last night if he hadn't been taken so bad. He's been ill a long time, my poor master has—gout and many other things. But when he saw you, sir, there was no holding him. 'Struthers,' said he (my name is Struthers, sir)—'there's a child, she's got a child—and a boy too: what I've always wished for was a boy.' The doctor had to let him come this morning,—he wouldn't be kept back; but he said to me, the doctor did, 'It's as much as his life is worth.' Family quarrels are dreadful things. I don't want to say a word against your mother, sir. She had her reasons, no doubt of it; but my poor master might have been a better man as well as a happier if——It's not for a servant to make remarks. Come a little nearer this way."

"I don't want to see him," said John, trembling. "I don't know who he is. I don't wish to hear anything more about him."

"He is your father, sir," said the valet, reproachfully; and John stood still with a strange fascination, yet repugnance, while the man withdrew the handkerchief which covered the face. The boy trembled from head to foot at the sight. It was a face in which there was little of the dignity and solemnity that so often comes even upon the homeliest faces when death has touched them—a large heavy countenance with bloated features, and eyes half-closed, with something of a stare in them under the light-coloured, scanty eyelashes. It was impossible to believe that the man was dead. The redness natural to it had hardly departed from the coarse face; a few limp locks of hair, laid over in life to hide the baldness, straggled now about the swollen temples—not a face to be remembered as that of a boy's father. John stumbled away, covering his face with his hands. What did it mean? His father?—but he had had no father since ever he was born.

Presently he was told that his mother was better—that she wanted him to take her home; but she did not say anything to him when he went into the next room where she was. She had her little black bonnet on, which always made so great a difference between her and the village women in their white caps, and which John had been unconsciously proud of, as a sign that she was not as they were, but an English lady such as he had read of in books. Her face was covered with a thick veil, and she took hold of his boyish arm with a sort of clutch, holding it against his, and almost resting her head upon his shoulder, for she was a little woman, and he was taller already than she was. In this way he led her through the crowd at the door, feeling the importance of it, even though he felt his heart turned from his mother in the shock of this discovery. She had deceived him in some dreadful way, he scarcely as yet knew how; but, at all events, he was her protector now, her defence against all these prying people. He held her up with his arm, and he made signs to them with his disengaged hand not to press upon her, not to speak to her. He was her protector, that was certain,—even though he might be angry with her, it was his business to take care of her, and not that of any other person in the world. They went along together, she always holding fast by his arm, her head bowed, her face hidden by her veil, along the white line of the Route Nationale, where scattered groups stood about every house, though thinning as they went on, and stared at her and him—until they turned into the valley road and the slopes of broken ground, beyond which the cottage lay. It was only when they were there, and no one within sight or hearing, that she spoke.

"Oh, John, you are angry with me," she said.

"How can I be angry with you? But you have deceived me, mother," said the boy.

"I have never deceived you—nor any one. All that—that was said of me, that I suppose you have heard—was not from me, John. I said nothing at all. I meant always when you were older to tell you, but I never thought you seemed to care."

"Not care!" he said.

He could not have told her even now the pang which was hot in his heart for the loss of his sailor father, the young father of whom he had dreamed so often, who had been coming home so joyfully to his wife and child, and whom death had seized in the middle of his happiness. He had thought of him so often, imaging him forth to himself, that it almost seemed to John as if he could have painted a picture of the young man sweeping the horizon to be the first to see land—that land which he was never to see. He meant to paint a picture of it one day, which should move every heart. He had almost heard the swish of the waves along the vessel's side, the sound of the wind in the sails, and seen the wistful look in that face,—which now he was to learn had never existed, never looked out for land, never borne that disappointment which had wrung his son's heart for him so many, many times. It was with a visionary anguish that the boy realised all this. "Not care!" What was there that he had cared for more? Scarcely even this mother, bowed down with trouble, who clung to his arm. The mother, though he loved her, was still a mortal and fallible: little questions rose between them: she came to decisions which were not always just according to John's way of thinking, and said things that jarred upon him. But the father was beyond all that. He was the true ideal, without fault, full of unknown treasures of tenderness and wisdom. It would have astonished that mother beyond measure, she who thought she knew her son so well and possessed all his affection, to know how much closer still that vision was to John's heart.

"You never said a word," she cried now, with a vague pang; "you never asked a question. How was I to know? But I meant always to tell you when you should be older. Oh, John! I know now that I was very rash and imprudent; but then I did not think of that, I was so young, and life was very hard upon me. I was disposed of just as they pleased. I was more unhappy than any one can ever know. And I have never regretted it till now. I have lived a life of peace with my own child. I have been quite happy—I who was so wretched, John."

"I wish you would tell me how it all happened," he said, almost coldly.

He turned his head away from her. He gave her still the support of his arm—so much support as was in it, for it began to tremble in her close pressure and even with her slight weight. He was so young, such a child, to encounter such a sudden tempest of feeling; but he did not in any way return the mute caress with which from time to time she pressed that boyish arm. It is seldom, perhaps, that a mother is to a child as she thinks she is; but she consoled herself that he was angry, and had perhaps some right to be angry now; and she waited until they had reached the house—the little home full of all the associations of his life—before she told him her tale.

She had married—or rather had been married with very little consultation of her own wishes—an inexperienced girl, overcoming her own repugnances (of which, indeed, how could a mother speak to her boy?) in the belief that she was loved for the first time in her life; for she had no parents, no brothers or sisters, nobody to give her any affection. She had, however, found, even in the first fortnight of her married life, that the love which she longed for was as far from her as ever. An accident, the most foolish and purposeless—the husband getting out of a railway carriage and being left behind as the train went on—had left her, troubled, miserable, alone, with a whole day to think over her fate. And in that moment, in her girlish rashness, she had decided it. She had escaped, leaving no clue. Chance had brought her to Cagnes, the little smiling, ancient town on its hill, which had pleased her fancy. It was a place where no one was likely to look for the little runaway English bride; and though she had no doubt that pursuit had been made, she had never been disturbed by any inquiries—never till the day before, when, standing accidentally in the little railway-station with John, as he must remember, she had seen her husband's face look out, and knew that she was recognised. Then she had known what would happen. She had hung about the station all day to see if he came back. And he did come back, but so ill, and in such a tempest of passion, that it had been fatal to him.

She told her tale very quietly, shedding a few tears; and she said at the end, "I do not know if it was wrong: it was breaking my marriage-vow; but I did not know when I made that vow what I was binding myself to—nor how unbearable it would be. And I have never, never regretted—oh, John! never till to-day."

"And why do you regret it to-day?" asked the boy, harshly; "because you have been found out, or because he has died?"

"Oh, John! oh, John!" cried the poor woman, covering her face with her hands.

CHAPTER II.

Perhaps he was not so kind as he ought to have been to his mother. At sixteen how can it be expected that a boy could enter into a woman's feelings and put himself in her place? It seemed utterly wild to him—without reason, without sense, a defiance of all laws. What a thing to do! to fling off the people who belonged to you, whoever they were, because they had made a mistake about a railway train!

After her story was told, there was not very much conversation between the mother and son. He went and worked in the garden a little with great energy: which was John's chief work, for the garden formed a great part of their living,—what with the flowers, which were sent into the Nice market, and vegetables, which were the staple of their own food. And then suddenly he threw down his spade and went out, feeling that he could think it all over better if he were out of reach of any call upon him. He went up the valley, which was so green and sweet—the valley where farther up the violets are grown in furrows like corn, filling the air with sweetness, though they have no higher destination than the greasy boilers of Grasse. John clambered up one side of the hills to a favourite spot among the trees, whence he could see all the wide landscape stretching out before him—the soft sea, in all its shimmering tints of blue, and the long cape of Antibes stretching far out into the water. There were not many of his comrades who cared at all for the view; but it was inarticulately dear to John, who never said anything about it, but climbed to that mount of vision in all his perplexities, to take counsel of the boundless horizon and the long-stretching lines of the hills. But to-night it made his heart sick to look out upon that vast panorama of sea and sky, one more blue than the other, crossed by soft whitenesses of cloud and shadow, and looking like one quarter, at least, of the great globe. How often had he gazed out over it, and thought of his sailor father nearing home! Oh, the fine vision of that hope unfulfilled, that life so full of gentle wishes long subdued, of longing love and expectation, and almost certainty of happiness to come! And now he was told that it had never been. This it was which filled him with the very rage of grief and loss. Hot tears like fire filled his eyes. No father, no sailor coming out of the unknown, with light in his face to bless the memory of his child!—no father at all, except that horrible figure at the hotel, the swollen and bloated face, the dead glare under the eyelashes, the ignoble countenance. John was French enough to fling himself down on the hillside, amid the bushes of cistus, and dig his hands into the soil in a paroxysm of pain and misery, though he was also English enough to be ashamed of this frenzy, and to pick himself up and do his best to subdue it. Must he give it up for ever, that vision which had accompanied him during almost all his conscious life? She said it had never come from her—she had not deceived him; and perhaps it was true, though he was quite unconscious that he had never betrayed to her that fancy and longing of his heart; but, at least, she must have known what the neighbours said—the story that some one must have invented, but which every one held as the truth, and he most of all. John wondered whether if he had ever betrayed that ideal she would have let him know that it was an illusion, and that his real father was very different. He doubted very much if she would have done so, or if he would ever have known the truth at all, except for the catastrophe of to-day; and with this thought a chill doubt of his mother and of everything in earth and heaven came into the boy's heart. Who would ever tell him the truth if she did not? and was he sure that he knew everything now, and that it might not change again, like a dissolving view? The foundations of the world were shaken, and he was not sure that at any moment the earth might not yawn and a gulf open before his very feet.

The day was darkening when he came down again from the hill. Lights were twinkling all round the horizon: the steady light on the point of Antibes, the little revolving one on the pierhead of that little town, which he had always been so fond of watching as it went and came; and in the distance, towards the east, the light of the Cap Fêrat standing out into the sea; and the little glimmer of the household lamps of Cagnes mounting in steps upon the hillside; and below a little flame from the railway and the cafés that surrounded it. When he turned his eyes from the sea, it was the latter that attracted John with a sort of sinister fascination. It flared out vulgarly, coarsely, into the night, so unlike the charm of those beneficent, calm lights held up on every side to guide the travellers at sea; but it drew his feet unwillingly towards the place where that horrible event had occurred which had changed all John's life for him. His father—not the father who slept under that silent shining of the Mediterranean, a father who had never been, except in the boy's dreaming soul, but whom he could not part with, who was a portion of himself—but the other, the dreadful reality, lying in the bare white room yonder, uncovered, in the clothes which seemed to make that reality more horrible still—was he still lying there as before, like a wreck, like something cast up by a wave, lying straight out, the head lower than the feet, in that awful way? John shuddered; but he was drawn, he knew not how, to the place, and stood in the dark opposite for a moment, looking at the glaring light and the men who sat at the round tables in front of the café, talking loud and all together. They had discussed the event till it was exhausted, and all the new lights it threw on l'Anglaise, Madame Jeanne; but now they had returned to their natural topics, and were as noisy as ever, quite unmoved by any recollection of that lump of ended being which lay up-stairs. He stood and watched, with a strange throb of horror and rebellion against that thing to which it appeared he owed his life, and at the same time with a sense of grievance in the carelessness of the men who paid no respect to it. As he stood there, the half-closed shutters were softly opened in that room, and a shadowy figure came out upon the balcony. John knew by the white cap that it was a Sister.

"Pour l'amour de Dieu taisez-vous, mes amis," said a soft voice, audible in the interval of the clamour below.

There were faint lights in the room into which she went silently back. Charity was watching over him, then,—watching and praying. John went away home very quietly, overawed, and saying nothing even to himself.

He was too late for supper, which was arranged on the table, though untouched; but he had no mild reproach to encounter, as he would have had in an ordinary case. His mother was seated at a little table, with a piece of paper and a pencil in her hand, writing, and then pausing to count her words and strike out now one, now another. She was saying over those words to herself aloud as he came in, and only looked up at him, not saying anything to him, continuing her task.

"Beg you to come to guard my son's interests. Beg you come, for boy's sake. Beg come——" She went on, withdrawing or changing a word every time.

"What is it, mother?" said John. These were almost the first words he had addressed to her since he had heard her story.

"I am writing a telegram. It will cost a great deal to go to England; I am trying to put it in as few words as possible."

"May I see it, mother?"

How happy it is to have a subject, something to discuss which is not the one absorbing thing, at the time of a great crisis! The two came together once more over this paper which had to be written so carefully. There was very little money in the house. Indeed they did not live much on money, these two people, but on their garden, and by simple ways of barter, with the smallest possible dependence on any currency; and to have to pay so many francs at the post office for a telegram struck them with dismay. In this point Madame Jeanne, who had lived for one part of her life in a country and class given to telegrams, was more at her ease than John, to whom it seemed incredible that as much as five francs, or even more, could be given for a mere message—a thing that was nothing, and benefited nobody. He asked her a great many questions on the subject.

"Who is this?" he said; "and why do you want him to come here?"

"He is my guardian, John."

"Your guardian? But he does not seem to have taken much care of you, mother."

"He did, as far as he knew. He thought that to marry me to some one who—would take care of me—was the best."

"But then he did not choose well—or else——"

"I was to blame, John. I don't want to clear myself. I was young, and I thought only of the moment and not of what was to follow. I didn't even know," she said, dropping her head abashed before her boy, "that God was going to send me a—child to comfort me. Oh!" she cried, taking his hand suddenly, "I am not sorry! I am not sorry, though I am to blame. How do I know how you would have been brought up? And we have lived very happily; and you are a good boy, a good boy, my own John——"

He let her cry upon his shoulder, but he did not know what answer to make. He could not yet forgive her the loss of his father—the sailor who had never come home. But his voice was more gentle as he said, "Mother, if it is to be sent to-night, I must run to post with it now."

The telegram was made up at last. It was not written in telegramese, and it cost more money than it ought. The reader will see how many words might have been spared. It was addressed to C. Courthill, Esq., Grosvenor Square, London.

"You will have heard I am here and my husband dead. Have been living here all time. Beg you come take care of my boy.Jane."

He ran with it all the way, counting the francs in his hand—eight francs, enough to have bought a great many things. He grudged the money very much, wondering why there should be so much haste, and if a letter would not have done as well, which would have cost twenty-five centimes and no more. But there are some things in which even a big boy must give in to his mother, especially when all the francs are hers. He returned more slowly, thinking this time more than he would have acknowledged of his supper.

And thus the day that had made such a change in his life, and indeed made far more changes than he had the least idea of, came at last to an end.

In the morning he said more cheerfully, "Don't be so discouraged, little mother. When the funeral is over and those people have come and gone, we shall forget everything, and things will go on just as before."

Madame Jeanne shook her head; but she was thankful for the softening in her boy's tone, and said no more.

He thought a great deal during the interval that elapsed before the arrival of the people who had been summoned from England and the formal funeral which followed immediately. It was not that there was any connection between this event, so far as he realised it, and the development of his own life. But a touch of fiery stimulation had been given to his mind, and his thoughts flew beyond this very unpleasant, but, so far as he was aware, inoperative catastrophe, to the real matter which was of importance, which was, what was going to be done with him? He was not so submissive as a French boy. Something of the English breeding his mother had given him, and the English books he had read, had given independence to his thoughts. He had made up his mind not to settle down, half-peasant, half-villager, to the lowly life of the country, to grow vegetables for his own nourishment and flowers for the market at Nice. He wanted to go away from Cagnes—to go to Paris, perhaps even to London, and study art. Since ever lie had known himself, he had loved a pencil beyond any other toy. He had scribbled upon stones, upon palings, upon doors, upon every wall that came in his way, since ever he could remember. The consequence was, that he had got as far unaided as a kind of caricature—perhaps the first step, as it is the easiest. He made sketches of the country-folk, which were very amusing to their neighbours, getting a kind of flying likeness with a burlesque touch, with the end that everybody was delighted by all the portraits in his picture-gallery except their own. His ardent desire was to go to Paris to perfect himself in his art, to become a great painter, and to send home a great deal of money to his mother. Perhaps he did not think very much of the lonely life she would lead, of the change it would make to her; but he did think of acquiring a very handsome house, perhaps the chateau which was on the very top of the hill, and commanded all the views—on the one side the sea, with Antibes on its promontory, and on the other the mountains and the valley, the great Rocher of St Jeannet, which cleaves the lines of little hills asunder, and the snow of the Maritime Alps behind. What backgrounds he would get for his pictures in that beautiful country! He would come back from Paris and the studios as soon as he was rich enough, and live there in the lovely spring, and study and make sketches, and live the old life which made his mother happy. Yes, he would take up that life again, and she would be as happy as ever, if she had only the patience to wait. But after this great disturbance John did not feel as if he could settle. He had said that things should go on just as before; but when his mother shook her head John's mind too made a great and sudden start, and he saw that things could not be as they had been before. At sixteen one is almost a man: the other lads were beginning to think of the time when they must draw their numbers, when independence would begin: he, as an Englishman, would not be called upon to draw any number; but he could not live upon his mother any longer—he must get to his work and begin his life.

He had resolved to talk to her about this the day after the funeral, when everything, he thought, would be over, the Englishmen gone back again, and the ordinary conditions of existence resumed. It might be hard upon her after all the excitement; but John felt that he would be cruel only to be kind, and that it would be best to have it over. The looks of the Englishmen did not altogether please him. He was French enough to have a little hostile feeling to these two middle-aged, or rather old gentlemen (as he thought), with their looks of exaggerated gravity and trouble, who came into his mother's cottage as if they disapproved of it highly, as if it were something they had a right to interfere with. What right had they to interfere? They had, of course, to do with the funeral, at which John, in a very curious jumble of feeling, had to walk as chief mourner, not knowing whether he were more gratified by the importance of his position, or overawed by the melancholy, or anxious to have all the fuss over and everything settled back into the old lines. But he was angry when both the Englishmen accompanied him back, all being over, to his home. He did not want them there again. He wanted to be rid of them, now that their business was completed. And they talked to each other over his head, as it were, as they walked along, amusing themselves by discourse and discussions of what was to happen to a certain "he" with whom they seemed to have a great deal to do. "He must be made a ward in Chancery," one said, "and proper guardians appointed"; and "his education will have to be attended to," said the other,—"of course he can have had none hitherto." "What a chance for a lad like that!" John felt a little sorry for the boy, whoever he was, whom they discussed like this. Madame Jeanne rose to meet them as they came in, darkening the little house with their big, black shadow. Everything was in solemn order to receive them, and she herself dressed in black, looking as John had never seen her look before. She was very pale, but had a kind of dignity about her in her black dress. She bade them be seated as a princess might have done, and then she drew John close to her and took his hand in hers.

"I understand," she said, her voice rather faint but firm, "that you have come now to speak to me about my boy."

"There are a great many things to speak to you about, Janey," said Mr Courthill, the man to whom the telegram had been sent. "You could not expect that our departed friend should have shown you any consideration after the way in which you treated him."

"I expect nothing," said Madame Jeanne, hurriedly; "I am quite willing to allow that I deserve nothing from him."

"And he was not aware that you had a child."

"No; I did not," she said, drooping her head, "know myself—or else it might have made a difference."

"I am glad to hear you say that—I am very glad to hear you say that: all the same, when you did know, it was your duty to have communicated a fact which was of so much importance, and which would, as you must have known, have given him so much pleasure."

Madame Jeanne shivered a little, as John felt, but she made no reply.

"Is not this losing time?" said the other lawyer. "You will have opportunities afterwards of reading lessons to Mrs Rothbury, Courthill. She may have taken a foolish step—she certainly did—but we can't change that now. She might have had a better provision had she acted otherwise. Our part is to tell her what is the state of affairs now——"

"I am coming to that. I only want you to feel, Janey, that you have no right to expect any consideration——"

"I expect nothing," she said—"nothing!" dropping John's hand to clasp her own together. Then she turned to him again, and took it back in hers. "The only thing that vexes me," she said, sadly, "is that I have ruined the boy. I ought to have thought—Who was I, to keep the joy all to myself? I acknowledge humbly that his father ought to have known."

"I am glad," said Mr Courthill, "to see you in such a proper frame of mind."

"Mrs Rothbury," said the other, impatiently, "I don't see that my part is to moralise. I must tell you without any more circumlocution that your husband has died intestate. There is no will."

"There is no will?" She looked from one to another with the blank of ignorance. What this meant for her or for her child she was without the faintest suspicion. "Indeed," she repeated, earnestly, "I have no right to anything. I never expected anything. I only hoped perhaps that, being proved to have a son——"

"His next of kin," said the lawyer, "and only heir."

There was a great silence in the room—a poor little cottage room, white wooden chairs and table; nothing that could be called a carpet on the floor; roses waving in at the windows in the luxuriance of a Provençal spring, but no other ornament. The boy's acute ears took in the words without understanding them; the mother repeated them vaguely with a kind of consternation.

"His heir! what do you mean? what do you mean?" she said.

"Janey, though you deserved no consideration, no generosity——"

She turned from this moralising voice to the stranger on the other side. "What do you mean?" she said.

"You, of course, will take your lawful portion as the widow. We are aware, Mrs Rothbury, that you have not, perhaps, fulfilled the duties of a wife—but otherwise you have done your husband no wrong. There is nothing that can be objected to in your conduct—and your son is his father's natural and only heir. I have long wished him to make a will; but he never would—guided, we may believe, by a higher instinct. It was what he wished for before everything, a son who would be his heir."

Then Madame Jeanne, who had been so calm, hid her face in her hands. The tears burst forth in a flood. "I have no right, no right to anything of his. I have kept John from him," she cried. "How was I to know it was the desire of his life?"

John caught the strange news at last with a sudden glow of illumination. He stood in his clumsy peasant youthfulness, unable to say a word, or to give any evidence of his excitement, gazing at the speaker with wide-open eyes.

"And, my boy," the lawyer continued, "you must understand your responsibility, and give your mind to the training which will make you fit for it; for you will be a very rich man."

An inarticulate sound escaped from the boy's throat. Oh, the sailor who had never come home, who had left his son nothing but love and honour! It was the anguish of the pang with which at last and for ever that tender apparition floated away, which wrung that cry out of John's heart.

"But, mind you, you deserved nothing from him," said the voice of the other man, see-sawing with uplifted hand from his chair—the guardian who had delivered John's mother to her fate.

"And I would rather have nothing," she cried. "I do not deny it. I did not do my duty by him,—how can I take anything from him? And I can make my own living, as I have done so long—if you will only think of the boy."

"Mother!" said John, tremulous, with his eyes shining, "it appears we cannot take our own way again. We are not the only people in the world. I am worse off than you, because I have lost what I believed in—my father: and even my mother in a way. But now I've seen him," he added, with a shiver, "and I don't blame you. If you had only told me from the first!"

"He was an excellent man of business—a very successful man—a father you would have been proud of," Mr Courthill said.

Another shudder of emotion shook the boy for a moment. "Anyhow," he said, "that's the truth at last." He set himself very square on his feet and faced the two Englishmen with that curious sense of hostility to them, as if it were they who had injured him; and yet an attitude which was entirely British, though he was not aware of it. "And I'll stick to it. I am not one for running away," said John.

This is not the usual way of accepting a great fortune. There was no elation in his mind over an advance which was almost miraculous. The two men stood, not knowing what to make of the boy in his curious mixed nationality. To his own consciousness he had lost far more than he gained: but how were these strangers to understand that?

This was how John Rothbury, not without a sharp pang, found out his true name and his real position in life.